Where is Poland headed?

Does Polish national-conservative leader Jarosław Kaczyński have a plan? Or are his policy decisions (which are often rushed through literally overnight) based purely on an unquenched thirst for power at any cost? As the leader of the Law and Justice party he has achieved an awful lot in just a few months: disempowering the Constitutional Court, gaining control of the public media and passing a new civil service law that will allow the party to appoint its own people to high posts in state institutions. More than ever before, it is necessary to find out where this anti-liberal blitzkrieg is heading.

Kaczyński is the de facto ruler of the country today, with Prime Minister Beata Szydło and President Andrzej Duda doing little more than obediently enforcing his ideas. Over the past few years Kaczyński has skilfully fuelled resentment in order to raise credibility for his own narrative of Poland as a ruined country and built the foundations to support his idea of completely reorganising the state. He has picked up on the real and justified socio-economic worries of many citizens, but at the same time has exploited and widened the existing divide between the liberal and conservative parts of society. The latter conservative element was who Kaczyński was aiming for in his speech during the Smolensk debate, when he deliberately alluded to the possible complicity of the Polish government with Vladimir Putin’s regime in the Tu-154 plane crash in 2010, which claimed 90 lives including that of his brother President Lech Kaczyński and was considered an assassination attempt by some in government.

Understanding his desire to use this last opportunity to firmly put his stamp on Polish democracy (having failed miserably from 2005-2007), and being sensitive to the particular brand of cynicism that has informed his actions to date is not sufficient to fully understand Kaczyński’s plan for Poland. That a “plan” exists is perfectly clear – it originates from its author’s worldview, which is made up of at least three components.

First is his conviction that liberal democracy, famously fragile and vulnerable, is an outdated political structure in this globalised and complex world. Instead, he thinks a strong government is needed that acts efficiently on behalf of the democratic majority and, where necessary, is able to take drastic measures to carry out the majority’s will without being permanently hobbled by the liberal system of “checks and balances”. Victor Orbán of Hungary has demonstrated in his own country that such a model can operate quite successfully without liberal sticklers and other malcontents being able to provide an alternative. Erecting a “Budapest in Warsaw” has been Kaczyński’s professed goal for a long time and he is now making great strides towards approaching this “ideal”. His marginalisation of the Constitutional Court, in breach of the constitution, serves as an apt example.

Secondly, while Kaczyński has shown little interest in the economy or foreign politics, his focus is on issues of society, history, morality and culture. Derided by many, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski’s statements on the mix of races and cultures and on vegetarians and cyclists as a manifestation of a leftist-liberal opinion leadership in western Europe are characteristic of Kaczyński’s party and its core voters, especially when combined with a rhetoric about how these very things  threaten the traditional foundations of the Polish state. They perceive the organic processes of liberalisation, secularisation and individualisation that brought major changes to European societies over the past few decades as ideological schemes imposed from above. It is their belief that a strong state requires a homogeneous, self-confident, community-oriented society that will only be able to ward off external threats when it doesn’t surrender to the corrupting processes of the West. Kaczyński’s affirmative politics of memory and control of public media are designed to ensure that the national community will be consolidated and based on these very values. In addition, a generous social policy correcting the “neoliberal excesses” of the previous government is supposed to strengthen social cohesion. Rejection of the “western model” as the only possible option is also geared towards ending the politics of imitation and instead to support a policy of innovation that takes better account of the Polish economy’s specific national demands. Incidentally, most experts and politicians, even those not affiliated with the party, see the latter as a necessary precondition for Poland to escape the looming “middle-income trap”.

The third issue is a late settling of accounts with “post-communist networks” that Law and Justice perceives as having influence on political and economic developments. However, it is up for debate how cynical this criticism might be. Undoubtedly, it provides a pretext for Kaczyński to deal with the hated establishment of the Third Republic. The secret services, which have now been provided with far-reaching powers (for example, in the area of internet user data) and whose political leadership has been given more powerful mechanisms of control, may play a central role in the fight against the “system”.

The party’s covert operations and the speed at which it is remodelling the state suggest that Kaczyński’s vision is close to being fulfilled. This would, however, be a premature conclusion. Just because Orbán’s model succeeded in Hungary doesn’t mean that Kaczyński’s is necessarily destined to in Poland. Kaczyński will of course be able to cause a lot of harm to the existing liberal republic in his attempt to make his political and social utopia a reality. His regime could throw Poland back a few years and bring institutional changes with it that will take a long time to reverse. However, it is doubtful whether he will be able to maintain his social opinion leadership in the long run and consolidate his power. His election victory was not based on a massive swing to the right in society (which never happened). It was instead facilitated by the failure of the liberal elite as well as by the friendly social image and anti-revolutionary rhetoric that Law and Justice used in its election campaign.

Unlike Hungary, Poland has a strong middle class that will not be patronised and doesn’t have a neo-fascist right comparable to Jobbik. The processes of social renewal that Law and Justice is naively trying to undo have brought irreversible change to large parts of the population. After two months of the present government, 50 percent of Poles are concerned about the state of democracy, while only 30 percent are satisfied with the government’s work. Tens of thousands are on the streets to protest against Law and Justice and the government is making life difficult for a whole range of social groups with its politics, including journalists, judges, and civil servants. Their protests are not going to subside and will not be stifled easily, should Law and Justice continue on its present course. It will require a great effort from citizens and the opposition for this mobilisation to persist and culminate in political power, but the fact that Kaczyński is misconceiving his mandate and in parts misusing it may cost him dearly in the next four years, and maybe sooner than we think.

This article first appeared on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

(Photo of Jaroslaw Kaczynski: Piotr Drabik)



Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Piotr Buras is a journalist, author and expert in German and European politics. Between 2008 and 2012 he worked as a columnist and Berlin correspondent for “Gazeta Wyborcza”, the biggest Polish daily. He started his professional career in the late 1990s at the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, one of the first Polish think-tanks. He continued his career at the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham and at the University of Wroclaw (Poland). He was also visiting fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin. His recent book “Moslems and the other Germans. The Reinvention of the Berlin Republic” was published in Polish in 2011.